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Old June 15th, 2004, 10:27 AM   #1
Major Player
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Rights for Improvised Dialog

If an actor improvises a line of dialog, who owns rights to that "writing"? Most actor agreements I have seen cover their image and usage, but not their text. I know that I can use it in the film, but could I print a text version including that improvisation transcripted?

I have been noticing that the closed-captioned text dialog that appears in movies often does not match what is said... the CC is from the script and the actors don't always say it word-for-word. I used to think that this was just a lazy transcription, but I am wondering now if it is a legal issue.

I know that in music what you can do with the audio and what you can do with the written lyrics differ greatly.

I am going to be drafting actor agreements for my next piece soon and so I'd like to understand it a little better.

Barry Gribble
Integral Arts, IMDB
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Old June 15th, 2004, 10:30 AM   #2
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That's a good question. But, my take is that the actor signs agreements to read the script accordingly. It's the same as a newscaster working behind the desk...if they read the script in the teleprompter exactly or with their own words it's still the station (or network's) newscasts. They can do whatever they want to it in the future...no matter what was said.

It's just my take, but if the producer has said read the script and they change it...it's their own fault for not reading it right. Although, the big question is when the producer/director says, "improvise" and they do.....hmm? Does that mean they have writing credit with those new words?

The easiest thing would be for the producer to have a contract written in a way that says all improvisation is owned by the company.

Christopher C. Murphy
Director, Producer, Writer
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Old June 15th, 2004, 10:50 AM   #3
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Thanks for the quick reply.

Yes, I agree that having an explicit contract is definitely the way, I am just surprised I have never seen one and so that makes me wonder if there is some legal precedent floating around that covers it. Is the rights transfer automatic? Or is it prohibitted? Or is it just that no one thinks about it?

The issue of "fault" isn't really material... if I drop $1000 it is my fault, but I haven't given up legal right to the money. Either way, in my productions I encourage a loose reading to give the actors more freedom.

I just don't want to be locked by that... if I remake it can the new actor use the old actors improvised line? Can I not print the screenplay (or even subtitles) with the actual dialog?

Two things that stick in my mind here are first the suit that contract writers won against the NY Times and such when they put stuff on line... contractors argued that NYT only bought the print rights, not electronic and demanded new payment... and won. The second is that I can record any song ever written and pay a fix payment for that, but if I want to print the lyrics I need to specifically negotiate those rights.

There are a lot of potential landmines in those types of things.
Barry Gribble
Integral Arts, IMDB
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Old June 15th, 2004, 11:56 AM   #4
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I expect Paul Tauger, our resident legal eagle will jump in with the specifics, but as I understand it the Production company is the "Author" of the film. They are the ones who file the copyright with the copyright office. The screenwriter must sell/assign the copyright of the script to the production company, before they start shooting. Everyone involved in the production, is contributing to it, but the ultimate copyright rests in the production entity. SO - the proco can do whatever it wants with an extra line that an actor improvises.
In the case of a one-man-band proco, the Writer/Producer/Director owns the copyright.
Make sense?
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